The Ferrari Of Flatsticks

Chicago’s Bettinardi Golf works with one credo:
Build the best, be the best

By Don Shell

TINLEY PARK — He built an empire out of gleaming steel, built on quality and precision, detail and design, an empire he’s milled and willed into existence. His various companies build everything from military parts to custom cases, and plenty in between.

But believe it or not, Bob Bettinardi’s true passion isn’t made of metal, it’s grown from grass. More than anything, it’s his love for the game that’s made his Bettinardi Golf company what it is today, which is the maker of some of the finest putters in the world, the veritable Ferrari of flatsticks.

And while his name might now be legendary, Bob Bettinardi is as real as it gets.

Reclining in the leather-seated lounge of his high-tech, low-pretense Studio B putting lab at the company headquarters in Tinley Park, Bettinardi looks every bit like a man at ease on this casual spring Friday. But having just toured the shop floor below us, a modest production center filled with nearly a dozen stations designed to cut, stamp, grind, spray or seal hunks of raw metal into works of art, it’s clear there’s nothing casual about quality here.

“You saw the machines out there, some of the machines are $350,000 apiece. That’s like a house,” Bettinardi said. “They’re the highest quality. We’d been doing parts for the defense industry, parts for the communications industry, parts for the medical industry. So going into the golf industry was not that hard. I was used to putting that kind of time and effort into it, so I didn’t really know any better. I didn’t know how to make a bad putter.”

The Brains of the Operation

Now more than 20 years and thousands of designs later, he still doesn’t. Vice President of Golf Operations Keith Webster, a towering man with an engineer’s head and an artist’s heart, says the real magic starts in one square foot of real estate: between Bob Bettinardi’s ears.

“The genesis of the ideas come out of Bob’s brain,” Webster explained. “Bob’s an old-school engineer, and definitely likes to work with napkin drawings, shape concepts and things he gets his inspiration from. But paramount, is the putter needs to look perfect to the player. It needs to instill confidence. You need to be in love with your putter, if you’re going to putt well. The focal point is the design aesthetics, and we engineer backward from that.”

Webster’s job is to bring Bettinardi’s creativity to life, first in the form of an intricate, 3-D CAD drawing, which is then carved and created on the shop floor with 99.8% accuracy. No detail is too small for Webster and his team, from the weight of the putter head, to the center of gravity, weight displacement, and even how the weight of a putter grip will affect the final product. With the ease of reciting his grocery list, Webster calmly rattles off a dizzying array of numbers and terms related to tolerances, formulas, offsets, balance and more.

“Every component, going into weight — figuring out what weight shaft we’re going to use,” he said. “What grip are we going to use? Is it a 52-gram grip, or is it a 58-gram grip? Because when everything is all said and done and we’ve got our Studio Stock-9 head completed, and it’s cut at 35 inches, I want to be able to tell you before it’s even done that it’s going to weigh D-4½ on the swing weight. All of those things factor into exactly what that putter is going to spec out at.”

Where Function Meets Form

He might be devilish on the details, but Webster hasn’t lost sight of what makes the putters so heavenly, either.

“The philosophy is on the single build of our putter,” he explained. “That’s what makes it all different. That’s why when players pick up the Bettinardi putter, and they stroke it or hit a golf ball with it, it feels better than everything else that they putt with. And there’s a scientific reason for it.”

Of course, the company also starts with the best materials available, to boot. The material is handpicked from the steel mills, with a specific set of qualities required to pass muster.

“The BB Series, Studio Stock line this year, is made with, technically, it’s called the 12L14 mild carbon steel blend, chemistry controlled,” Webster said, slipping back briefly into left-brain mode. “Steel is like baking a cake. It’s an alloy, so you’ve got all sorts of different elements that go into this. And you can buy the cheap stuff, and the cheap cake, and maybe it’s not the best flour or the generic sugar, or you can buy the one from the bakery, that you know that they’re using the best ingredients. It’s the same thing with steel. Bob’s come up with his recipe, his percentage of carbon, nickel, sulfur, magnesium … so that it machines well, and it feels the best when you’re using it.”

Recipe for Success

Bettinardi has roughly five sources for its steel, but where it comes from is less important than its chemical composition — and that it meets Bob’s recipe for success.

Out on the shop floor, Webster holds out a four-pound hunk of shiny steel, which will one day bear the honor of becoming a Bettinardi putter. Well, some of it will, anyway. Sixty-three percent of the steel ends up recycled or resold. As that block moves from station to station, it gradually takes shape as its intended design, carefully measured and scrutinized every step of the way.

“I know down to the width of a human hair if it’s a good putter or not,” Webster explains. “Realistically, nobody makes putters like this in the world. I guarantee you, no matter where you’ve been, where you’re gonna go, you’re never going to see a process like this.”

The Proof is in the Putter

The result — roughly 42 minutes after it began (but who’s counting) — is a gleaming Bettinardi putterhead, stamped with the trademark honeycomb design the company calls the “flattest face in golf,” that’s to a millionth of an inch flat. That kind of TLC equates to about 18 putters per shift, which is a far cry from the commodity mills of its competitors.

The company partnered briefly with Mizuno in 2006, but since splitting from the manufacturer in 2009, has seen a 30% growth curve, Webster said. Bettinardi has returned to its boutique, quality-first roots that Bob Bettinardi had in mind when he started the company in 1991.

Not surprisingly, Bettinardi Golf, which is part of Bob’s parent Excel Technologies, is an ISO-9000-certified shop, and proud to build its putters in the Chicago area it calls home. Bob points out he could’ve moved production overseas, but wants to keep complete control over quality. It’s hard to argue with the results, either.

“Quality before quantity,” Bettinardi explains. “That’s where a lot of companies in the golf industry will think just the opposite. That’s the beauty of being a private company, you don’t have to worry about anybody breathing down your neck saying you have to increase your revenues, you have to increase your profits. But this year, we may be sold out of our 2012 product by July, which is amazing.”

Not really, not when you consider how hot his putters certainly are. How does he do it? For him, it just comes natural.

“I guess I have a knack for seeing something that looks really good,” Bettinardi explains. “You have guys that design 12 or 15 putters, and three or four will be like, ‘ehhhhh …’ But our 2012 line — which is I think the best we’ve ever done — there’s not a dog in the bunch.

“I have an eye on what my fellow golfer — whether it’s a one or a 30-handicap — is going to like.”

And the only thing Bob likes more than building them is playing with them. Talking to him in his Studio B lounge — where their four-camera system custom fits putters for anyone in about an hour — it’s clear Bob would much rather be playing than talking.

“This is a creative outlet for me, sure,” he said. “But I’d rather be on the golf course playing. I love golf … I mean, c’mon. That’s where my creative side comes out, when I’m making pars and birdies. Then the doubles and triples creep in, and the creative side goes right out.”

Not likely. Just like the perfect putters he creates, Bettinardi is on an unbeatable roll.

For more information about Bettinardi Golf, visit www.bettinardi.com.